Eight years later, a very different campaign for McCain

COLUMBIA, S.C. — There are few if any states as freighted with history for John McCain as South Carolina.

It was here in 2000 that the senator from Arizona came, riding his 18-point victory over George W. Bush in New Hampshire. And it was here, in the fortnight of their bitter struggle, that Bush reversed the outcome and put an end to McCain’s hopes of reaching the White House that year.

John Courson, the veteran Republican state senator from Columbia and former member of the Republican National Committee, had a close-up view of that struggle as part of the state political establishment supporting Bush.

So it was a significant moment for him, and for McCain, that Courson was the master of ceremonies at the McCain rally in downtown Columbia that closed his 2008 pre-primary campaign on a rainy Thursday afternoon.

Courson was only one of a half-dozen conservative legislators who paraded before the microphones here to identify themselves as past Bush campaigners now endorsing McCain. Some, like Courson, had made their decision months ago; others, just in recent days.

Their comments struck familiar themes: praise for McCain’s endurance as a Vietnam prisoner of war, for his steadfast support of the armed forces, for his insistence on victory in Iraq — and for his conservative social issue positions.

The effect was to dramatize how far McCain had come, in eight years, in co-opting the heart of the Republican establishment, with several of the state’s most popular Republicans — including the senior senator, Lindsey Graham, the state attorney general and the speaker of the state House of Representatives — all vouching for him.

Graham had been almost alone in backing McCain in 2000, when the establishment Republicans who looked to former Gov. Carroll Campbell for guidance all lined up behind Bush.

The campaign that unfolded back then was notably ugly, including anonymous slurs on McCain’s behavior in a North Vietnamese prison camp and unfounded rumors that the child his wife had adopted from a Bangladeshi nursery was actually the product of an extramarital relationship between McCain and another woman.

No one can be certain how many votes were shifted by this underground campaign. Last week, McCain told reporters he attributed his 2000 defeat not to the sneak attacks, but to the depth and breadth of establishment support for Bush.

In this campaign, a multitude of options were available to those who were not ready to sign up with McCain. The evangelical community, which is large and well mobilized, had former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, or, alternatively, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, both with strong anti-abortion records. Mitt Romney gave South Carolina short shrift, preferring to focus on Michigan and Nevada. And Rudy Giuliani spent his time and money preparing for the Jan. 29 race in Florida. But all of them, plus libertarian Ron Paul, could claim constituencies of some size.

Graham said the real difference this year is that “we’ve had eight years to get to know John” and to reflect, perhaps, on the decision the state made in rejecting him for Bush the last time around.

To encourage that reconsideration, the McCain campaign surrounded the candidate with people who symbolically reinforced the message that McCain is a mainstream, Reagan-era Republican.

He came to Columbia flanked by two icons of the conservative movement — Tom Coburn, the physician-senator from Oklahoma, and Jack Kemp, the former congressman from New York.

Coburn is a hero to two types of Republicans — those for whom abortion is an abomination and those who view wasteful federal spending as almost as serious a moral failing. He has built an uncompromising reputation on both subjects. When Coburn testifies that he regards McCain not just as an ally but as a model, it challenges the notion that McCain is an unreliable maverick.

As for Kemp, no one has a longer history of championing supply-side economics, with its persistent belief that lower tax rates spur economic growth, than the old quarterback and one-time secretary of housing and urban development.

McCain is better known for fighting earmarks and other forms of “nonessential” spending, and famously opposed Bush’s first rounds of tax cuts because they did not call for similar spending reductions. But Kemp told the voters here that McCain wants an overhaul of the whole tax system, “and I will work with him” — adding to reporters that he also admires the senator’s insistence on a “humane” approach to the issue of immigration.

Basking in their praise, McCain could hardly believe all this was happening to him in South Carolina. Whatever the result, this campaign was very different.

David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is davidbroder@washpost.com.

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